Stewart, Cosby, Williams: Tough Times for U.S. Comedy

Take heed, sirrah, the whip.
   King Lear to his Fool

Jon Stewart’s farewell episode of The Daily Show last night proved joyful rather than sad as dozens of people whose careers took root and bloomed under Stewart’s watch turned up to celebrate and — despite his resistance — to thank him.

For the under-30 crowd, last night was their May 22, 1992: Johnny Carson’s last episode of The Tonight Show.  Unlike Carson, Stewart has no plans to disappear from public life; yet more dissimilar Stewart is universally reported to be a great guy rather than a jerk.

No reasonable person can fault Stewart for wanting to do something new after brilliant 17 years, but it’s a stabbing loss to nightly political commentary and to comedy. 

Funny people abound in U.S. comedy — and I’ve now reached my tautology quotient for the day — but in different ways we’ve lost three icons in the last year, Stewart the most recent.

Bill Cosby was the second: like Stewart, Cosby is alive, but since Hannibal Buress put the spotlight on Cosby’s history of sexual assault last fall all the joy Cosby had brought to us over the decades tastes sour.  Don’t get me wrong: Buress was right to do it, and it’s a shame on us all that until a man said it nobody took alleged attacks on women seriously. 

And I mourn the loss of the joy.  For most of my life, Cosby’s voice hasn’t been far from my inner ear.  Just this morning I found myself thinking about an early routine called “Roland and the Roller Coaster,” but then frowned as all the stories of his assaults on women rolled into my mind. 

I’ve heard stories of Cosby’s infidelity since I was in high school.  One of the dubious privileges of growing up in L.A. is knowing a lot of celebrities and their kids.  I was in a play with the kid of a famous woman who knew Cosby well.  I don’t know how it came up — I must have been merrily quoting a Cosby routine — but the kid said, “you know he cheats on his wife all the time, right?”  I don’t remember having an intelligent response beyond, “oh.”  Even then, infidelity was something that struck me as being an issue among the people directly involved rather than the public’s business. 

I remained a Cosby fan, and his observations intertwined with those of George Carlin as a running commentary in my head.

Now when I hear Cosby’s voice in my head I change the mental channel with a flinch.

It’s the second time that I’ve found myself dancing across the minefield of my own responses to Cosby: the first was after the mysterious 1997 murder of his son Ennis just a couple of miles from where I grew up.  After that, I couldn’t listen to any of Cosby’s routines about his kids, and particularly his son, without sadness. 

But I still listened. 

Not anymore.

Next week bring the one-year anniversary of the third and most grievous loss, the suicide of Robin Williams. 

A friend stumbled across LIFE magazine’s tribute issue to Williams at a garage sale and bought it for me, as she knew I was a huge fan.  I’ll read it on Tuesday, on the anniversary of his death, but I haven’t been able to open it yet.

I had the privilege of seeing the incandescent Robin Williams perform live onstage three times and saw or listened to him numberless other times.  The speed and depth and genius of his wit will never leave me.  His 2001 appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio with James Lipton was the most astonishing display of mental gymnastics that I’ve ever seen.

Darkness always lives in comedy, and when the light is that bright the simple math of it says that shadows must go deep.  I wish I could have done something for him, even though we never met.  I understand this but I still can’t accept it: the funniest man in the world killed himself.

Dustin Hoffman captured the unfathomable, unacceptable, incomprehensible nature of Willams’ suicide in an unguarded moment during an onstage interview with Alec Baldwin that later became a June episode of Baldwin’s wonderful Here’s the Thing podcast.  Hoffman was talking about Lenny Bruce, and how Bruce didn’t prepare set material.  The only other person Hoffman could think of who was like Bruce was Robin Williams.  As he said the name, Hoffman broke down in a sob that hit him like a lightning bolt from a clear blue sky, and it took him several seconds to collect himself.  I cried too.

Good luck, Jon Stewart, and thanks. 

Bill Cosby, I wish you were as good a man as you are a funny man, although that’s a tall order.

Robin Williams, rest in peace.  You deserve it.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

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